Brave New City

Like most people, New Yorkers don’t go out very much anymore.

We do it more than we did back in April or May, but still… it’s not the same city. You know, the “city that never sleeps” or the one whose residents say things like “the city is my living room”? That city isn’t back. Nor is it ever likely to be. Not entirely.

Empty streets & closed storefronts, Manhattan in lockdown, Spring 2020. Photos by Koli Mitra.

First came the pandemic and lockdown. Then, just when the weather heated up and spring was in its last bloom and people had more than enough cowering … I mean “sheltering”… in place and we all started taking longer walks or hanging out in parks and riverbanks (bars weren’t open yet)… the country was seized by massive civil unrest. Like many cities, New York erupted, and, unless you were a protester or a cop, the idea of a stroll in the neighborhood gave you pause. Not to mention the curfews preventing you from being out for large chunks of time.

Black Lives Matter Protests, Manhattan. Photo by Koli Mitra.

Still, I made periodic forays into what used to be my “living room” and is now something like an alien environment (one wears special gear to traverse it and scrubs down thoroughly upon return, immediately depositing the clothes from the expedition into the laundry, or at least quarantining it until ready to launder, disinfecting doorknobs, floors, the phone, the keys… any surface one might have touched since being out in public).

The New York I saw in various states over the last few months tells a complex story. More accurately, it gives partial glimpses of many complex stories. Unlike what media and political talking heads would have you believe, there is no single, easy-to-package, linear narrative. Just a scene here. A plot point there. A few dramatic characters and imagery strewn about.

The story elements are often contradictory, sometimes incomprehensible… and maybe ultimately irreducible. Time will tell.

There are visible signs that things are “different” now. People give you a wide berth instead of elbowing you without a second glance. Occasionally someone loudly and angrily chastises others for not keeping enough of a distance or not wearing masks. A contemporary take on the obnoxious New Yorker trope. Mostly, though, people try to keep their distance. Folks line up outside of Whole Foods or Papaya King, six feet apart, as designated (in some cases) by markings on the sidewalk. Restaurants that have dared to open at all, offer outdoor seating now, even if they don’t actually have any outdoor space. They just put out a line of tables on the sidewalk, or even the street. The city has allowed this in select areas by closing off some routes to vehicles.

An East Side restaurant with no outdoor patio improvises by taking over part of the street as an extended dining room, to provide customers with good social distancing and great natural ventilation. Photo by Koli Mitra.

And of course, just about everyone is wearing a mask… though some people seem to have it on as a nod to social expectation only, wearing it more around the chin than over the mouth and nose. I can’t really blame them. They are probably on their ONLY outdoor hour of the day (or week) and have been burrowing in an apartment since March. How could they NOT long to draw a genuinely unobstructed breath of fresh air?

Oh, that’s another thing. The AIR is so much fresher than I ever remember in the City. A drastic reduction in human and vehicular traffic for five months will do that! But unfortunately we’re breathing mostly indoor air (which is more polluted than ever) and when we do step out, we breathe our own recycled exhalations. The cruel irony.

Many familiar businesses have folded, unable to weather the months-long lack of income. Some have become less stable. A diner famous for having been open 24/7 since 1940-something was shuttered when I walked by there in mid-June. It has since reopened, but now has shorter daily hours and is closed on Sundays. Many stores, especially small mom-and-pop types, initially had hopeful messages in the spirit of “see you after the lockdown, be safe!” are now gone forever. Some of them, like a small pet grooming place I often used to walk by, are boarded up, with a revised note, saying goodbye and thanking former customers for years of patronage. Others are just empty and bare, leaving you to draw your own conclusion about their fate.

Barnes & Noble closes. Photo by Koli Mitra.

Strikingly, one of the “thank you/goodbye” messages adorns the once imposing Barnes & Noble, last of the “big box” mega-chain bookstores, which in their 1990s heyday were blamed for driving out the local, independent booksellers. All brick and mortar bookshops have struggled in the last couple of decades thanks to Amazon. Barnes & Noble was teetering for years, but somehow held on by offering in-person experiences, like reading spaces, children’s play areas and designer coffee and confections. The lockdown was the last straw.

Yet, a few NEW businesses have managed to crop up. For example, there is a prime commercial space on Second Ave avenue, with a corner view, opposite the upscale Café D’Alsace and adjacent to the Writing Room (successor to Elaine’s, the iconic hangout of artists-and-intellectuals from 1963 to 2011), a space that had been inexplicably vacant since 2016. It was among a growing number of such vacancies, one of the telltale signs of a long, gradual decline of the city’s economic vibrancy. This spot, incredibly, has just debuted a colorful new eatery, which looks mid-priced but with a decent menu and an inviting vibe for families – exactly the kind of place that seemed to be doing worst for years now. I’m not sure what the story is here, but I’ve made a note to self: MUST look into this.

Above & Below: 2 views of The Red Grill, a bustling new restaurant occupying a prime corner space that had been vacant for several years. It opened when restaurants became tentatively permitted to serve dine-in customers (rather than take-out or delivery only, which had operated throughout the lockdown). Photos by Koli Mitra.

A few weeks ago my partner and I ventured out to midtown, with some trepidation. We live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which, thankfully, has not experienced any violence. But we know many areas have seen massive vandalism, lootings, fires and shootouts. We both felt some apprehension about what we will find. He wondered “will we run into police barricades?” I wondered “are people still going about trying to live some semblance of ‘normal’ life?” We both wondered “how much of New York is still there? As in physically intact?”

Turns out, it’s mostly “still there.” With varying degrees of scarring, but nowhere near the scale of destruction many other cities have experienced. At least not on the island of Manhattan. Reports from The Bronx and Brooklyn are worse, but I have not seen them firsthand. As for whether the city is lively again – well, here’s the thing about New York: 8 Million people call it home. This is more than one out of every thousand people in the world. And that’s not even counting the hordes of suburban commuters and tourists and business travelers that usually filter in and out daily. So, even if it has a TENTH of the “normal” traffic, that’s still more than one out of every ten thousand people in the world. And it would still look as bustling as most cities do in the best of times. But it’s definitely not “normal” for New York.

New Yorkers, including, I believe, Rep. Jerry Nadler (see if you can spot him!) lunching at The 5 Napkin Burger. Photo by Koli Mitra.

We did have one typically New York moment on our excursion. We stopped at the 5 Napkin for lunch. We rarely eat out anymore, for social distancing reasons, but something about being out in the world, refreshed by natural air and trees, bathed in the sun’s warmth and vitamin-D, makes you less anxious, more confident in your ability to take reasonable precautions while still being around others. During our lunch, we noticed a fellow patron who looked like Congressman Jerry Nadler. Overhearing an enthusiastic passerby stop and chat him up about politics makes me think it was really him. On my way out, I clandestinely snapped a photo of him. Yeah, that’s him… I think. So, “normal” New York is still here, buried under all the weirdness.

Speaking of weird: I have not gone out at NIGHT since March 20, which is very weird. The last few weekends I did hear SOME sounds of merrymaking from down the block. But, by most accounts, New York is still uncharacteristically dead at night. Except for when (and where) there is a protest or a riot. But these are tapering off (and they have never been nearly as bad as, say, Seattle or Portland or Minneapolis.

These few months have had the feel of a long era. Some “traditions” have even come and gone during this time. The first 2-3 months, every night at 7 PM, the city residents broke into cheers for the healthcare workers (as well as each other, I suspect). Hooting and hollering, clapping and whistling, banging pots and pans together, blowing horns (car horns as well as megaphones), for a couple of minutes. I wondered if this would become a permanent thing. But after the first time it coincided with a protest, people no longer seemed to know if we’re done with that. So it started petering out, though, for a while some people still kept it up, on the evenings without any audible protests. My upstairs neighbor was an especially enthusiastic participant in this ritual. One evening in mid-late June, after several missed nights (due to marches and loud, sustained slogan chanting), we finally had a “normal” quiet 7 PM hour. My neighbor rushed to her window to bang her pans and yell out “Go New York! We love you!” as was her custom. No one hollered back. She tried tentatively for a few more seconds and stopped. That was it. New tradition abruptly cut. While I’m grateful this routine nuisance is finally over, I did feel a wave of sympathy for my neighbor, who perhaps out of the relentless isolation of lockdown, found a little solace in a nightly ritual of bonding with strangers as a makeshift community.

Lockdown emptied the streets but every night at 7, homebound New Yorkers raised a ruckus to remind the City it’s actually teeming with life. Photos by Koli Mitra.

I feel the changes. They feel profound, even when my rational mind tries to tell me it’s just something whimsical, something quintessentially New York. It feels significant, for instance, to suddenly find a T.S. Eliot poem chalked onto the pavement in front of the 88th Street Episcopalian Church of The Holy Trinity. It appeared long after “poetry month” when it would have “made sense” without further context. And, unlike most of the currently burgeoning industry of ground-graffiti all over urban America, this one doesn’t a have an in-your-face message about revolutionary politics or race-relations or economic disparity or the police or Covid-19…. In other words, it’s not a sidewalk-chalk version of Twitter. Neither does the exact quote (about time and timelessness, righteousness, and love), strike me as overtly religious, though it is from a poem about God and salvation and it did choose to lay itself at the feet of a Church. And there is something beautiful about this pleasant scrawl of dusty pastels, watched over by a lush garden and a dazzling 19th century red-brick cathedral (a “national-registry-of historic-places” building). But it doesn’t fit anyone’s grand narrative about the epoch-defining changes that are happening in the city or the world.

Church of The Holy Trinity. East 88th Street, New York. Photo by Koli MItra.

Personally, I don’t think the way our world will (inevitably) change can be explained as a singular new phenomenon or even attributable to one or two obvious factors, even if those obvious factors are drastically catalyzing changes long in the making, and will undoubtedly have an exaggerated impact. I see the seeds and sprouts of many stories that will become clearer over time. There is so much that needs to be processed and reflected on, with regard to the city’s life going forward: its economics, its system of law and order (both good and bad aspects), its physical infrastructure, its everyday processes – its traffic patterns, its cultural institutions, its statuary and public art, its social gatherings. New York, as one of the densest and most multicultural (or at least culturally diverse) human habitats in the world, will also have to reckon with the suddenly accelerated cultural and relational expectations that will arise, for good or ill. New York already has a reputation for repeatedly reinventing itself… will this turn out to be just one more such episode?

I would caution against trying to process all of this too quickly and too “politically.” Right now, only three things are apparent to me. (1) Things can’t possibly revert to the “same” as before. (2) There are telltale signs of some kind of non-stagnant, non-burrowing “life” trying to reassert itself. (3) There are many threads of many stories taking place here and it would be wrong to force them into a single digestible, politically sellable narrative.

Categories: Feature, Society

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